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Baseball

The Rangers’ Outfield Is in Flux. Can Leody Taveras or Bubba Thompson Stabilize It?

Willie Calhoun's demotion could set the stage for one or both of two long-time farm favorites to make their way up to Arlington.
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Leody Taveras' first stint in Texas underwhelmed. But down on the farm, a new player is emerging. Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers’ roster was going to be rearranged over the weekend, no matter what. This year’s rules afforded teams a 28-man roster for the first month, with required cutdowns back to 26 by May 2. A pair of moves were guaranteed to go down once the calendar turned to May. One of them turned out to be a stunner. 

Outfielder Willie Calhoun is out—both from the major-league roster and, maybe, eventually, the organization, as he’s asked the Rangers to send him to a new team. But Texas didn’t option the 27-year-old to make room for a younger player forcing his way into (or back into) the picture. His replacement on the roster, at least from an outfield depth/left-handed DH/pinch-hitter standpoint, is fellow ex-Dodger Zach Reks, who’s actually older than Calhoun by a year and had all of 10 (hitless) major league at-bats to his name.

For all the buzz their next wave of pitching prospects is generating, not to mention the varying degrees of progress that young starters Dane Dunning, Taylor Hearn, and Glenn Otto have made in Arlington, the Rangers, for once, aren’t making nearly as much noise developmentally on the hitting side. Top prospect Josh Jung will miss virtually all of 2022. Infielders like Josh Smith, Davis Wendzel, Justin Foscue, and Ezequiel Duran are doing promising things at the upper levels of the system, but given the state of the big league infield, there’s hardly a Foscue Watch afoot.

The outfield picture, however, is far less settled. The biggest story on the Rangers farm so far centers on a 23-year-old’s long-awaited breakout. So why isn’t Leody Taveras in Texas?

“I think Leody is gonna be here soon,” manager Chris Woodward told Levi Weaver of The Athletic over the weekend. “I’m not going to tell you how soon, but we definitely are keeping an eye on him; I’m watching every game on my computer, watching the swings, the at-bat qualities, and he’ll be here at some point.”

What Woodward is seeing is more than just results. Through work this spring with Rangers bench coach and offensive coordinator Donnie Ecker and minor league director of hitting Cody Atkinson, Taveras adjusted his swing mechanics. He’s now standing taller and setting up lower with his hands, maintaining greater balance as he gets his foot down to initiate contact. It didn’t take long for the changes to take hold: he was hitting .539 a week into the season and has yet to hit a skid.  

“All those physical adjustments have definitely led to more confidence,” Atkinson said. “Easily the best mindset I’ve ever seen him in.”

Taveras, in a second season with Triple-A Round Rock and seeking a third season with the Rangers, is hitting a Pacific Coast League-leading .374. His 1.034 OPS ranks fourth, he’s second in the league in total bases, and, as always, he’s a weapon defensively. He looks nothing like the career .258-hitting minor leaguer (or .188-hitting big leaguer) whose power has always been an idea but never a reality. 

“Leody is trusting himself more than I have ever seen,” said Round Rock bench coach Chase Lambin, who was also Taveras’ minor-league hitting coach in 2021 and 2019. “He knows he has power, but isn’t forcing it. He takes what he is given. He is using the whole field from both sides of the plate.” 

As usual, the switch-hitting Taveras has been better as a left-handed hitter–but when you’re putting up a .988 OPS from your weaker side, nobody’s going to complain. 

Long the darling of the Rangers system in spite of ordinary production at the farm system’s lower levels, Taveras got an extended look in Texas in the abbreviated 2020 season. He showed flashes of production in his 33-game debut (four home runs, eight stolen bases in eight tries, exceptional center field defense) but his plate approach was suggestive of a player who wasn’t quite ready. He had two starts out of 32 without a strikeout and was generally easy to pitch to. 

His 2021 was significantly worse, at least in the majors. After hitting .227/.308/.395 in his 2020 Rangers debut, the line plummeted to .161/.207/.270 in 2021, with a ratio of 60 strikeouts to nine walks in 49 games. He was completely overmatched with Texas, which made his subsequent Triple-A stint—17 homers in 87 games in his first run through Round Rock after hitting 19 in his first 470 minor league games—get less fanfare than it probably deserved.

When Taveras reported to camp this March, there was basically never a question that he was going to return to the farm to start the year. He got eight Cactus League at-bats—the same number as Meibrys Viloria and fewer than Nick Tanielu—even though his relatively quiet .742 Dominican Winter League OPS obscured one massive development: he’d amassed more walks than strikeouts in his 40 winter games. 

The spring training plan was clear: go back to Round Rock and build off the better winter, with no pressure of an Opening Day roster spot on the line. His response? Taveras has done much more this spring than just build off a good offseason showing. He’s giving the Rangers something far more intriguing to think about. 

Still, when the Rangers optioned starting pitcher Spencer Howard to Round Rock on Saturday, they replaced him with Reks, whose Triple-A numbers with the Express were solid but nothing like the pinball line Taveras has been putting up. Except Reks wasn’t coming up to supplant anyone in the lineup. He’s gotten one start and entered another game as a pinch-hitter. Woodward did drop hints that another outfielder’s job security might be endangered upon the 28-year-old’s arrival—that outfielder turned out to be Calhoun—but as for Reks, his opportunity in limited spots to audition for an extended big-league opportunity, here or elsewhere, is just that.

That’s not a role the Rangers want Taveras to fill. When he shows up again, it will come with the challenge of an everyday role. For now, Adolis Garcia is the one fixture in the outfield, with veterans Kole Calhoun and Brad Miller sharing the bulk of the remaining reps with Nick Solak. At some point, the organization might very well decide to move on from the older Calhoun (.356 OPS) or Miller (.545 OPS), even though Miller is under contract through 2023 and Calhoun has a team option for 2023 (though there’s no buyout cost to Texas if the club chooses to cut ties). 

But for now, it seems clear that the Rangers have a plan in place for how long they want to see Taveras produce on the farm before reaching back down to get him. Even though he’ll have a final minor-league option next year, Texas is surely hoping that Taveras’ current breakout in Round Rock, which is now nearing 100 at-bats, is the prelude to a one-way ticket, once and for all, to Arlington. Make center field his, slide Garcia back to right field, and go from there.

Could the picture be completed by another 23-year-old outfielder at Round Rock in the midst of his own breakout? Bubba Thompson is making his case. The Rangers left him off the 40-man roster last winter, exposing him to his first Rule 5 draft even though he’s exactly the type of position player—speed, late-inning defense, a bit of thump—teams keep on short lists for the winter draft. Then the league canceled the draft this year due to the lockout, sparing the Rangers from sweating out whether the 2017 first-round pick might have been scooped up by another club willing to put him right away on a big-league bench.

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Bubba Thompson is making a case to be in Arlington before the summer is over. Andy Nietupski / TTL Sports Media

They’re glad they escaped the risk because, at this rate, they won’t assume it when the Rule 5 draft returns this winter. Thompson is impacting games with his bat, his feet, and his glove, hitting .349 and sitting at an .878 OPS after posting a career-best .808 mark last year at Double-A Frisco. As the competition has gotten better, so has he. 

If the Rangers do plan to add Thompson to the offseason roster, they might look to get his acclimation to the big leagues out of the way later this summer. For now, there are clearly things to work on. For one, he hasn’t cut down his strikeout rate and has drawn just one walk in 18 games. He’s struggled to relocate his rhythm at the plate since coming back from a ball to the eye that cost him five days late last month.

Though he’s trying to redefine his ceiling, Thompson projects as a starter on a team that’s not very good (such as the Rangers at this moment) or as a fourth-outfielder weapon on a contender (which the Rangers plan to be within a couple years). If and when he comes up, it will probably be in a situation that affords him more than just emergency duties and gives him a chance to force his way into the 2023 plans. But that’s not imminent.

Plus, Taveras is almost surely going to get the call first. Sooner or later. And ideally, this time, to stay.

Author

Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…

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